Visitors to South Africa’s wine regions will too often find themselves hitting the same wineries and bumping into the same travelers during their visit. Here’s a better idea: Spend time at the lesser-known gems run by winemakers whose innovative and interesting wines are putting the Elgin and Swartland regions increasingly on the global map.
SOUTH AFRICA — The Cape Winelands north of Cape Town are filled with big-name wineries that deserve their reputations and their crowds: Delaire Graff, with its dramatic views. Babylonstoren, for its impressive farm-to-table restaurant. Spier for those perfectly manicured grounds. But if you want to visit wineries that everyone else isn’t visiting on their honeymoon or wine tour, these are the up-and-comers innovating from the North West inland valleys of the Swartland region to the Southern East Coast of Hemel en Aarde. Decades-old, family-run wineries, conservation-forward winemakers, and exceptional wine are just some reasons why you should hit the road and discover the lesser known wine route and the wineries conveniently located within 90 minutes of Cape Town.
Banghoek Valley, Stellenbosch
Tucked away in the Banghoek Valley in Stellenbosch and surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful mountain ranges, the independently-owned family winery aims to produce the finest wines in the valley. The small quantities of both red and white handcrafted wines are made only from grapes grown on the stunning estate, including cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah, merlot, chardonnay, and chenin blanc. The vineyard’s enviable location in the depths of the valley forms an amphitheatre of mountains to stunning effect. The rest of the natural elements — proximity to both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, elevation, winds, soils, and Rondekop (the round hill at the center of it all) — give Oldenburg a considerable edge in producing fine wines.
Just north of Stellenbosch, you’ll feel like you traveled back in time at Muratie Wine estate, whose deep Cape history dating back to the 1600s makes it one of the oldest estates in South Africa. The decades-old vintage tasting room, which appears to be guarded over by ancient oak trees, is filled with antique wine-making equipment and stained glass windows. Not a bad setting for sampling their bold Bordeaux blends. Historically, Muratie has been known for being the first producer of pinot noir and today is a well-respected player in the shiraz and Bordeaux realms.
Known as the misfits of the wine industry and rebels of the vine, the three best friends behind Black Elephant Vintners have cut out the stereotypical pretentiousness of the wine industry and dedicated their raw passion to creating unique wines with unrivaled character. Wine and cheese would be considered too mainstream for this bunch. Instead they offer a music and wine pairing, where a medley of funky retro music matches the unplugged varietal flavors. Start with Beethoven and a brut MCC and end on the wild side with Lou Reed and a fierce grenache.
One of the biggest perks of visiting the smaller, family-run wineries in the region is the attention to detail and the passionate, knowledgeable staff. At Lynx Winery, more often than not the winemaker or viticulturist will be on site to guide you through the vineyards and wine flights in their intimate tasting room — a glimpse of real South African hospitality. While Lynx may be the smallest estate in the valley, their 100 percent shiraz has won numerous gold awards and racked up a total of 90 points from Wine Enthusiast.
Hemel en Aarde, literally translated as “heaven and earth” in Afrikaans, is one way to describe the elegantly perched tasting room designed to look like a white chapel high above the vineyards. Be sure to try their award-winning chardonnay and take in the jaw-dropping views from above. Insider perk: Virgin tasters are allowed to ring the onsite bell to announce their first tasting here.
A lush garden valley a mere 45 minutes southwest from Cape Town, Elgin is the natural home for lovers of fresh food, cool-climate wines, and beautiful country living. Predominantly known for its apples and pears, Elgin Valley is one of the most exciting and undiscovered wine regions in South Africa. Brothers Stuart and James Downes have mastered Shannon’s semillon and merlot with minimal intervention and strive to safeguard the species grown on their abundantly green farm.
Continue past Elgin and down the Houwhoek Pass into Bot River — and don’t be alarmed when the roads turn into actual beaten paths. Arriving at Luddite Wines estate, you’ll be welcomed by Niels and Penny Verburg, who run the small family vineyard and focus on their favorite varietal, an award-winning and hearty shiraz. Aside from personally hosting the tasting and producing top-quality wines, the farm is also home to a herd of happy pigs, along with Frantoia, Mission, and Leccino olive trees.
Continue inland to the Swartland, where a magnificent backdrop of hills and mountains, gold-hued wheat fields, and the blue Berg River pave the way for A.A. Badenhorst’s full-bodied red and fortified wines. While Adi and his cousin Hein Badenhorst may very well be part of the new revolution of winemakers, their methods are very much old-school, practicing biological farming and minimal intervention winemaking to preserve their wines in the most traditional manner.
Go Deeper on a Tour with the Pros
Inspired to go off the beaten track on your next trip to South Africa? If you don't want to DIY, sign up for a food and wine experience with Explore Sideways, who lead tours in Cape Town Wine Lands and beyond.